"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

15 June 2009

Quotables from Wendell Berry


First, a distraction: I was getting ready to write this post when I heard knocking in the living room. Sure enough, the crazy bluebird was attacking himself again in the picture window, which apparently creates an excellent reflection at certain times of day. I pulled the curtains over the window to keep him from giving himself a concussion, remembering the Baltimore Oriole that nearly killed himself on my father's pick-up side mirrors back when I was in high school. Every day when he got home from work he had to cover the mirrors with paper bags . . .

I love Wendell Berry's writing. I do not always agree with his conclusions, but I appreciate his eloquent defense of simplicity and tradition. Last night I was skimming Life is a Miracle, trying to decide if I'm in the mood for it just now. I think not, but I enjoyed the section of brief concluding notes. Sometimes he makes me laugh -- and then forces me into a completely unexpected depth of thinking, like this note did: "The anti-smoking campaign, by its insistent reference to the expensiveness to government and society of death by smoking, has raised a question that it has not answered: What is the best and cheapest disease to die from, and how can the best and cheapest disease be promoted?" The implications are profound . . . and perhaps a bit frightening in today's climate.

There goes the bluebird again -- someone has opened the curtains. I may kill him myself, to put him out of my misery.

Here is another note, this time about art: "Good artists are people who can stick things together so that they stay stuck. They know how to gather things into formal arrangements that are intelligible, memorable, and lasting. Good forms confer health onto the things that they stick together. Farms, families, and communities are forms of art just as are poems, paintings, and symphonies. None of these things would exist if we did not make them. We can make them either well or poorly; this choice is another thing that we make."

And again the bluebird. I give up. I shall have to pull the shade down and live in a cave this morning again . . .

15 comments:

Phillip Johnston said...

I believe this is my first comment here (for shame), but when I saw Wendell Berry, I just had to say something. He has been so refreshing for me this summer. I've read his essays before, but am almost finished with one of his longer novels (Jayber Crow). The man is clearly a poet and you can tell it in his prose, too. His theology is a bit strange at times, but the way he values and exemplifies love and community in his writing is so beautiful.

Nearly every page has a quotable like the two you posted here. I've been asked to speak at my church on Sunday about why I think the arts are important for Christians and I'll definitely be using that second quote.

One of my favorites quotables from Jayber has been this:

Somewhere underneath of all the politics, the ambition, the harsh talk, the power, the violence, the will to destroy and waste and maim and burn, is tenderness. Tenderness born into madness, preservable only by suffering, and finally not preservable at all. What can love do? Love waits, if it must, maybe forever.

alaiyo said...

You must comment more often, Phillip! I haven't yet read any of Berry's novels -- which would you suggest for starters? Even his nonfiction has that poetic quality.

Tell me about what you plan to say on Sunday, if you will.

What a wonderful quote. Thanks for sharing it!

Sallie Carter said...

If and when you do decide to read Life is a Miracle, it may be helpful for you to know that it was written in large part as a rebuttal to E.O. Wilson's book, Consilience.

alaiyo said...

Sallie, thanks for visiting Inscapes. I am not familiar with the work you mention -- could you give me a quick sense of what it is about? Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Wilson's book claims to be about how all the disciplines ought to unite as equals, but really it is about how science is the only legitimate discipline and ought to replace all the others. The book is full of examples of the apalling clonclusions that fanatic scientific materialism inevitably leads to. Berry's book is written in response, addressing many features of Wilson's ideology and showing their inherent contempt for life and totalitarian implications. But you don't have to have read Wilson's book to appreciate Berry's. Berry always quotes from Wilson and makes it very clear what he's responding to (and his book is not entirely a response to Wilson; much of it stands on its own as an overall critique of the sort of extreme materialism Wilson is but one proponent of.) I read Wilson's book only after reading Berry's, because I was curious if Wilson could have actually meant the things he said, or whether the quotes were perhaps taken out of context. What I found was that Berry didn't even address many of Wilson's most shocking assertions. Wilson's book is full of contempt for literally everything that isn't strictly reductionist and materialist "science" (read "scientism")--from "prescientific" cultures to postmodernism and everything in between. It is a work of profound arrogance.

alaiyo said...

Thank you very much; that is helpful! It sounds like the kind of thing that interests me -- but maybe later on in the summer. :)

Phillip said...

I've only read one of his novels, but have been told of him for a long time. His poetry is wonderful and I really wanted to go see him speak when he was at the Southern Lit. conference in Chattanooga this spring. Alas, it was the day after Jr/Sr and I was dog-tired.

You would probably love Jayber Crow. It's full of small acts of grace and has beautiful, understated redemptive qualities. I loved it. Made my heart ache ... in a good way.

Sallie said...

Anonymous certainly has one way of looking at it. I am reading Consilience right now, and while Wilson does have that slightly annoying big-headedness that many of the smart science-types have, I am not having the same reaction to the book. Then again, I love science.

I haven't read Life is a Miracle yet, as I wanted to read this one first. It is waiting on my shelf though.

Anonymous said...

Some of my comments on Consilience are obviously opinions, for instance that "it is a work of profound arrogance." However, many are observations. That Wilson shows brazen contempt for "prescientific cultures," for religion in general, and so forth, is not an interpretation of mine; it is all there in Wilson's text. He even goes so far as to declare that human beings were "handicapped" before science, and that we were "blind" and "deaf" until we had microscopes and radio waves. Of course, that is just one example. His book is full of diatribes against all sorts of things that don't fit within his very narrow view of what "science" allows as legitimate. I put science in quotes because it is not an issue of being for or against science. Scientism--the ideology that ONLY strict scientific materialism is legitimate, and that everything else ought to be eliminated (yes, that it ought to be eliminated is Wilson's view)--is not the same as just plain old innocent "science."

eutychus said...

I have read Berry's "Fidelity" a collection of short stories and fell in love. He is indeed a poet and it shines through his prose beautifully. I thought the first story in the collection described sin and forgivness in a very profound way and later, he describes married love in one of the best ways I've ever seen.

alaiyo said...

Eutychus, thanks for the recommendation - on the list along with the novel that Phillip has suggested. Now, as soon as faculty development money comes available again . . . :)

eutychus said...

I just gave your blog the Honest Scrap award. For more details, see http://eutychusblog.blogspot.com/2009/06/honest-scrap-award.html

Anonymous said...

A Place on Earth is a masterpiece! Start with Nathan Coulter and read them all in order. You will be rewarded!

W. Scott Smoot said...

I've enjoyed reading your posts.

I've reviewed Berry novels and stories at my blog. They're collected on this page: http://smootpage.blogspot.com/search?q=wendell+berry

alaiyo said...

Thanks; I'll check it out.

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